NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico’s highest court heard arguments on whether or not partisan gerrymandering is an issue that can be resolved under the New Mexico Constitution. The debate comes after the state’s Republican Party filed a lawsuit over the recently redrawn political districts.

The legal battle over the state’s political maps began a year ago when a lawsuit filed in district court by New Mexico’s Republican Party alleged that the state’s newest political maps “accomplish a political gerrymander that unconstitutionally dilutes the votes of the residents of southeastern New Mexico.” Last year, the Supreme Court stepped in to help decide if that argument is valid under the state’s constitution.

Sara Sanchez, for the defendants, asked the Supreme Court not to enter the “political thicket” and instead dismiss the lawsuit.

“The issue here is that there is not a justiciable claim. The court certainly has jurisdiction to consider whether or not this claim is justiciable under New Mexico law. And it is not because it presents a political question,” said Sanchez. Before Sanchez could give all her reasons why the Justices began questions.

Justices framed the arguments in terms of hypotheticals. Justice Bacon, for example, asked Sanchez whether a hypothetically totally rigged and gerrymandered system should be addressed by the courts. In response, the defendant agreed that such a system would be broken, but it’s not necessarily the court’s role to fix it.

“We are not asking the court to imagine whether there’s any hypothetical situation which could exist,” she says. But even in an extreme, hypothetical case, deciding the constitutionality of redistricting is not up to the courts, Sanchez argued. It’s “A political problem that needs a political solution,” she said.

When it comes to hypothetical standards on gerrymandering, “we can’t define it,” Sanchez says. “And that is the heart of the problem because it is a political question, not a legal one.”

Leading up to this Supreme Court case, the state’s first independent redistricting committee took input from New Mexicans across the state before recommending how the state legislature redraw the state’s political boundaries. But, the Democratically controlled Legislature rejected the committee’s proposed map of congressional districts and instead voted for a differing map of congressional districts, which the Governor ultimately approved. The Republican Party of New Mexico alleges that the process is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the New Mexico Constitution.

The map approved by Democratic legislators differs from the three maps recommended by the independent redistricting committee. Image: KRQE News 13

Arguing for the side of the Republicans, Daniel Gallegos Jr., noted that New Mexico’s voters were “cracked,” i.e. that voters in the southeastern portion of the state had their votes diluted by how the political lines were drawn. So, Gallegos said he wants the opportunity to prove that in court – something he’ll have no opportunity to do if the NM Supreme Court sides with Sanchez.

Gallegos further argued that because other pieces of legislation are subject to judicial review, the redistricted maps be something the judicial branch should be allowed to weigh in on as well.

The Republican Party asked the courts to declare the current political maps unconstitutional, given that there was discriminatory intent in adopting the current maps. But Chief Justice Vigil asked: “How do you prove discriminatory intent?”

“We have direct evidence of intent,” Gallegos replied. “We have statements from the Speaker of the House. We have statements from a Senator that indicate the intention of the legislature.”

After hearing arguments, Justice Bacon said they’re going to take some time to make a decision. “The Court, typically on an extraordinary writ, would attempt to convene and reach a decision today,” Justice Bacon said. But “we are not going to do that. In this case, this is an issue of significant importance, and we want to be deliberative.”